Seeing what we want to see in our friends

Photo by Flickr user davy 49. Click for sourceThe Boston Globe has an interesting piece on how bad we are at judging our friends’ beliefs, opinions and values but why we tend to assume they match with our own.

The article covers various examples of this effect, but it mentions a finding from a shortly to be published study finding that the most socially connected people are typically the least accurate at judging their friends’ attitudes:

A similar effect arises when people are asked questions about right and wrong rather than politics. Recent research by Francis Flynn, a psychology professor at Stanford, and Scott Wiltermuth, a doctoral student there, looked at people in tight-knit workplace and graduate-school settings.

The researchers found that people assumed, often unquestioningly, that their responses to a series of ethical dilemmas were shared by the majority of their close colleagues. In reality they often were not. More strikingly, it was the more socially connected among the test subjects who were more likely to be wrong.

The article has a bit of a quirk, however, by supposedly explaining “Psychologists call this projection: in situations where there‚Äôs any ambiguity, people tend to simply project their feelings and thoughts onto others”.

Except, they don’t. The effect discussed by the article, where we over-estimate the extent to which people share our own mindset, is called the false consensus effect.

Projection is a unverified psychological defence mechanism where people supposedly misperceive psychological states in other people that, in reality, they have themselves but unconsciously want to hide from their conscious mind.

This was a concept originally developed by Sigmund Freud and systematised, along with a range of other ‘defences mechanisms’, by Anna Freud in her landmark book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence.

However, as with the majority of defences proposed in psychoanalysis, the basic process has been experimentally verified but the defence aspect (it’s the unconscious hiding the unthinkable from us) has not.

Link to Globe article ‘What you don‚Äôt know about your friends’.

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